With the first fully operational, crewed NASA trip to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011 now planned for November 14, it is tempting to imagine that the ISS, largely bought and paid for by the U.S., has a bright future ahead of it. But that’s not the case. Our toehold in space could by the end of the decade become a floating derelict doomed to be de-orbited into the South Pacific like the old Soviet Mir Space Station. Yet in spite of its age and maintenance and upgrading requirements, the ISS’s potential value cannot be ignored.
Plans for the disposal of the station are, to put it gently, in flux. In theory, there is enough thrust and power aboard to push the whole thing safely into the ocean; in practice, no one has ever sent such a large structure crashing from orbit to the Earth’s surface. But if our investment in the station can be maintained at a reasonable cost, then perhaps the question of its ultimate fate can be postponed for a long time to come.
The U.S. has, by itself, invested more than $100 billion into the ISS, and that money is a sunk cost. NASA and its partners have long wanted to shift most of the financial burden of running the station to the private sector, so as to free up money to pay for a return to the Moon and other ambitious projects. The process of turning the ISS into a true public-private partnership has been slow and full of legal and bureaucratic hurdles. Today, in part because SpaceX has lowered the cost of sending astronauts and cargo to the station and in part because of the emergence of an entrepreneurial and fairly well-financed “New Space” industry, the ISS could be made viable for at least another 20 years, but only if NASA, Congress, and America’s international partners are willing to show some patience.
Much of the commercial research that NASA has planned for the next few years will have direct benefits for the terrestrial economy, from medical advances to the development of new Earth-observation technologies. But the most promising research is that linked to the future of space industrialization. Setting up 3D-printing systems in microgravity will pave the way for large-scale space factories, which, by the late 21st century, could process resources from a Space Mining industry and send them down to consumers on our planet.
This would be a big step toward moving terrestrial mining and heavy industry outside the atmosphere, relieving the environmental burden that such industry places on our planet and allowing for a new kind of economy, focused on providing people with a higher quality of life. The ISS is already showing that it can be a testing facility for new, self-contained, detachable modules, such as the ones now being planned for a 2024 deployment by Axiom of Houston.
One should always keep in mind that NASA is a creature of the U.S. government and its priorities and peculiarities reflect this. Its decision-making process is slow and subject to unexpected changes. Yet over the last 20 years, NASA has slowly but stubbornly made the ISS into an achievement of which all our citizens should be proud.
America has long lacked a tradition of effective public-private partnerships. Slowly, NASA’s work on the ISS is showing that our old limits can be transcended with enough time and the right motivation. The risks of space industrialization are not small, but the rewards are potentially gigantic: With a little luck and the right vision, we could change the economics of human civilization dramatically for the better in the coming decades — if America maintains its commitment to the ISS.